Why Ellen Pompeo Stuck With Grey's Anatomy After 10 Years Of 'Toxic Work Environment'

The early cast of Grey's Anatomy Izzie Cristina George Burke Meredith Grey Derek Shepherd ABC

That smell in the air is smoke from the scorched earth burn Ellen Pompeo just gave the first 10 years of Grey's Anatomy. It's not coming off as coincidental that the first 10 years happened to star Patrick Dempsey as Dr. Derek Shepherd.

Grey's Anatomy premiered on ABC in 2005 and Patrick Dempsey left after Season 11 in 2015. Not that Dempsey was the only star with drama in the first 10 years. Those first 10 years, or 11 seasons, were also some of the fans' favorites. But apparently those years were particularly tough for Ellen Pompeo (Meredith Grey).

The topic of Grey's Anatomy's "toxic work environment" came up during Ellen Pompeo's chat with Taraji P. Henson. Henson asked if there were any times in the past 15 seasons and counting that Pompeo wanted off the bus.

There were many moments. It’s funny: I never wanted off the bus in the year that I could get off. The first 10 years we had serious culture issues, very bad behavior, really toxic work environment. But once I started having kids, it became no longer about me. I need to provide for my family.

Ellen Pompeo's first child was born in 2009, so after that point her priorities shifted. In terms of "bad behavior" at Grey's Anatomy, well some of it made headlines.

You must recall the fight Grey's Anatomy star Isaiah Washington had with Patrick Dempsey, that was said to include a homophobic slur directed at co-star T. R. Knight. Shortly after that, Knight publicly came out as gay. Washington's Preston Burke was dropped from the show after Season 3. Katherine Heigl also sparked some controversy when she said she declined to submit her name for consideration at the Emmy Awards since she had been given insufficient material to warrant a nomination as Dr. Izzie Stevens. She got out of her contract after Season 6.

Ellen Pompeo added during her Variety chat that, after age 40, she didn't think she'd ever have another opportunity to make this kind of money, and also not have to travel for work. Grey's Anatomy has been perfect for her three kids that way. But there were also changes behind-the-scenes that made sticking around a more attractive option:

But after Season 10, we had some big shifts in front of the camera, behind the camera. It became my goal to have an experience there that I could be happy and proud about, because we had so much turmoil for 10 years. My mission became, this can’t be fantastic to the public and a disaster behind the scenes. Shonda Rhimes and I decided to rewrite the ending of this story. That’s what’s kept me. Patrick Dempsey left the show in Season 11, and the studio and network believed the show could not go on without the male lead. So I had a mission to prove that it could. I was on a double mission.

Yes, Ellen Pompeo has spoken out before with her frustration at the reaction after Patrick Dempsey left Grey's Anatomy. Many vocal fans said the show should end without Derek, and Pompeo was disappointed that they didn't think Grey's Anatomy could go on with just Meredith Grey as the lead. She had also said she was more worried about what would happen after Sandra Oh left Grey's Anatomy as Cristina Yang. When the show didn't suffer in ratings after Oh's Season 10 departure, she didn't worry about the show after Dempsey left.

Speaking of Patrick Dempsey, Taraji P. Henson asked if he and Ellen Pompeo were getting paid the same in the beginning or not. Here's her response:

He was being paid almost double what I was in the beginning. He had a television quote. I had never done TV. [...] 'He’s done 13 pilots.' Well, none of them have gone. I didn’t even realize until we were renegotiating Season 3. No one was offering that up.

A few months ago, Ellen Pompeo noted that she and Patrick Dempsey haven't spoken since he left the show, although she emphasized that she had no hard feelings toward him.

I can see Patrick Dempsey making more than Ellen Pompeo at the start. The Can't Buy Me Love and Sweet Home Alabama star had a lot more on his resume at that point. But Pompeo is right that Grey's Anatomy follows Meredith Grey, her name is in the title and on the hospital. After the show became a success, after the first couple of seasons, she and Dempsey should've been making at least equal pay. They were not.

But now Ellen Pompeo is not just the star of Grey's Anatomy, she's one of the producers. She signed a deal to continue Grey's Anatomy through Season 16 and into Season 17. During her talk with Taraji P. Henson for Variety, Pompeo did add a little note that makes me wonder if we'll be getting more challenging stories for Meredith Grey in the future:

I haven’t been challenged creatively at all. Every once in a while we do an amazing storyline. But for the last five years, I’ve had other milestones that we were trying to achieve behind the camera.

With Season 15, Grey's Anatomy hit a major milestone to become the longest-running primetime medical drama ever, passing ER. Pompeo is also now the highest-paid woman in a TV drama, thanks to her new contracts. Grey's is still seeing strong ratings on ABC, even after 15 seasons, with some of that due to new fans still discovering the show through reruns on TV or Netflix and then catching up to watch the new episodes on ABC.

Going into Grey's Anatomy Season 16, there's clearly going to be a lot of drama ahead for Meredith Grey. She was just fired from Grey Sloan, and she may end up going to prison for insurance fraud. Maybe that'll give Ellen Pompeo some challenging creative material, as Grey's continues to give us powerful and relevant storylines well into its 15th year.

There's a lot more to come for the rest of Ellen Pompeo's Grey's Anatomy family as well, including her fellow OG Alex Karev. Watch the 2019-2020 season play out starting this fall on ABC.

Gina Carbone

Gina grew up in Massachusetts and California in her own version of The Parent Trap. She went to three different middle schools, four high schools, and three universities -- including half a year in Perth, Western Australia. She currently lives in a small town in Maine, the kind Stephen King regularly sets terrible things in, so this may be the last you hear from her.